The boat ahead of them was called the ‘Canterbury Belle’ and was clearly a hire boat like their own. It was also crewed by what seemed to be a bunch of high schoolers and college students. Xander had become a seasoned hand when it came to estimating the ages of young women, and the girl at the tiller didn’t look a day over sixteen, no matter how hard her colour streaked hair, her short shorts and her jangle of designer accessories tried to scream otherwise. The couple sprawled across the cabin roof were a little older; one of them was a young man of around eighteen with ginger hair and freckles to match, and the other was an olive skinned young woman around the same age. Neither of them were wearing very much – all short shorts, and exposed skin – but while she made the display worth looking at, he was still at that lanky, growing into his bones stage. Too many lanky angles and not enough muscle tone to make him count in the eye candy way – and too young for Xander’s tastes, anyway. Far too young.
He loped past the slowly chugging boat, giving the girl at the tiller a jaunty wave as he passed. She grinned and waved back. So did the girl on the roof. Ginger and freckles glared at him territorially, and Xander tried hard not to smirk. There was no way he had any interest in stealing the guy’s girls; not only did he have more than enough young women back home to fill his lifetime quota several times over, but he was firmly and fiercely spoken for.
By a magnificent and cunning old tiger who outclassed these young cubs on every count – at least as far as he was concerned …
The prow of the ‘Belle’ was the perch for three more idle figures – a girl of thirteen or fourteen, and what looked like her younger brothers. The smallest, and probably the youngest, of the three was climbing up on the bow as Xander jogged past, using the supports for the complexly knotted fenders as a climbing rope.. The girl lunged after him and dragged him back into the bow well with an efficient manoeuvre that suggested it might be a regular occurrence.
“Stop it, Mike,” she whined – with good reason, Xander thought. “I’ll tell Mum.”
Mum was clearly the more mature figure in the body hugging jeans and the sloppy sweatshirt that was currently ahead of him on the towpath, along with two more of the student types. The young man was in his early twenties, his hair a slightly darker version of ginger and freckles back on the boat. The young woman with him was slimly built and blessed with a cascade of sleek dark hair that fell well below her shoulder blades. Since ‘Mum’s’ hair was a bottle shade – the kind of fiery red that screamed ‘fire alarm’ rather than ‘sultry auburn’ – it was hard to tell if ginger and his brother were also her children, although it was probably a good bet that they were. A family, in any case, doing the kind of together thing that Xander had never had.
Well, not until he’d found it hunting vampires and loitering in libraries, and doing other world saving and fear for your life kinda stuff. Hopefully these guys were managing to rack up some much more mellow memories with a lot less oh god I’m going to die moments in them.
Although some of those were probably Xander’s best memories, given his less than sterling family life …
“Need a hand?” he asked cheerily as he joined the Canterbury’s advance party at the lock. The water level inside was level with the upper level of the canal, which was promising, since it would save both time and effort if the whole flight were set that way. ‘Mum’ turned, her eyes raking him up and down in quick appraisal before she answered his question with a smile.
“A good arm and a strong back might be more useful,” she said, glancing past him as she did so. “That your boat?”
“The green one with the good looking guy at the tiller? Yeah. That’s us. Well,” he added for accuracy’s sake. “It’s ours for the rest of this week, at least. Then we have to give it back. Not exactly something you can put in your suitcase to take home as a souvenir.”
“Not really, no …” ‘Mum’ scrubbed her hand down her jeans and then held it out in friendly greeting. “Nancy Morrison.”
“Xander Harris,” he responded, taking the hand and giving it a friendly shake. “You okay if we - slip in beside you so we can go down together? And I so didn’t mean that the way it sounded …”
“I hope not,” Nancy laughed, not at all put out. “Sounds entirely sensible to me. Pleasure to meet you Xander. This is my son, Simon, and this is Gemma.”
“Who’s with me,” Simon said, part proud and part possessively. Gemma – who from the front had a slightly sultry, Latin hint to her features - rolled her eyes at him.
“Ignore the dork,” she said, offering out her own hand. “He’s way too much into the us thing. Mind you,” she added, “he’s my dork, so I can hardly talk. You American?”
“Yup.” Xander emphasised the drawl with the ease of long practice. There were some places in the world where having the accent had proved to be a distinct advantage. Other places, not so much. “California born and bred. Land of oranges, sunshine, and absolutely no canals whatsoever. That I know of, that is.”
“Cool.” Gemma looked impressed. Simon less so.
“Cool dudes,” he said pointedly, “don’t come to England to swan about on crappy canals. They surf and stuff. Get their dads to take them to hip places, like Hollywood and LA.”
Nancy was frowning at her son’s rudeness, but Xander merely shook his head and sighed a patient sigh. Gemma was right. The guy was a dork. But he was young. He had time to learn. “Two things,” he said. “One, LA is not hip. It’s full of smog, hot air and not a lot else, and two? I’m not here with my dad. My dad is so far from cool he’s probably broiling in hellfire by now. Unlike the guy back there – who is totally cool in his own, stuffy English guy way. And who’s gonna be wondering what we’re doing up here, standing around when we should be opening lock gates.” He winked at Gemma – no harm in stirrng Simon’s jealousy a little – grinned at Nancy and strode away, leaping up onto the closed gates so he could make his way to the other side of the lock. Somewhere behind him he heard an indignant ow, as Nancy flicked at Simon’s shoulder with motherly irritation – and then a second, as Gemma did much the same.
Xander grinned to himself. He’d long since learned just how bad an idea it was to upset the women in his life, and if Simon hadn’t then it was about time he did. An irritated girlfriend was bad news. An annoyed mother even more so. And while it was unlikely that this particular young man would ever run across the worst possible scenario – a pissed off slayer – the sooner he learned how to recover from an unthinking moment of muscle headed macho-ness, the better.
“Do you need help over there, Mr Harris?” Nancy was asking, using a combination of body weight and a pointed glare at Simon to start the lock gate swinging. Xander leaned into the one on his side, feeling the tug and swirl of the water snatch back until he managed to get it moving.
“Nah, I can manage. I got the hang of this now. And it’s Xander. Please. Mr Harris hangs around in an uncomfortable suit and an even more uncomfortable office, dreaming of days like this.”
“I know the feeling.” Nancy stepped back as the Canterbury Belle slid into the now open lock, nodding approval at the seemingly well behaved trio at the bow, and frowning at the sprawl of teenagers on the roof. “Ben, get down here and give your brother a hand. Hallie, honey, do you have to work so hard on your tan? There are a lot better things to do with your life than lie around like a piece of bacon all day.”
Hallie, the seventeen year old who wore hints of Italy and Asia with equal confidence, rolled up onto her elbow – giving Xander a very interesting view of sculptured shoulders and a cascade of silken hair.
“You want me to start sorting the salads for lunch?” she asked, not at all put out at the motherly admonishment. She glanced back in Xander’s direction and smiled. “We having company?”
“We might.” Nancy had been distracted by the arrival of the White Knight, which Giles had managed to slide in beside the Belle with masterful precision. “Uh – Xander? Would you and your … friend? Care to join us for lunch? Just a picnic thing.”
Giles glanced from mother, to family, to Xander, and back again; his face asked a wary question, which Xander answered with a nod and a smile. “There’s a place to stop, about half way down, right? Then we’d love to,” he said. “Nancy – this is my partner, Rupert Giles. Giles – this is Nancy Morrison. And clan.”
He watched Nancy’s face as she unravelled what he’d said, her eyes darting between the two of them. There was a moment of startled revelation, followed by an almost chagrined nod of acceptance. She didn’t quite say what a waste, but he thought she might be thinking it. About whom, it was hard to tell. Giles, he suspected, since his own manly good looks were mostly down to a barely abandoned youth and long days spent hunting demons and hauling building material. Hunky, but hardly Hollywood material. Giles, on the other hand, had that whole mature English gentleman thing going, his own particular mix of Hugh Grant, George Clooney, Harrison Ford, David Niven, Alec Guinness and half a dozen other sophisticated guys, all of which added up to Giles in a unique and notable way. Especially when he was being his charming best, which he was, right there and then, giving Nancy that boyish smile and tipping his cap to her and the other ladies on her crew.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” he was saying, and they were, Nancy, Hallie and the as yet unnamed girl at the tiller.
They continued to be charmed as the boats made the descent together, a complex dance of balance beams, swung gates, jostling hulls, winding paddles – up and down – ropes and idling engines, all played out with grunted effort, friendly talk, and a whole load of laughter. Xander learned all the names of the other players – Mary and Michael (Mike only to his sister, apparently) and Jim (short for Jamison, not James) at the bow, and Amber at the tiller. Jim and Amber were brother and sister, the children of Nancy’s younger brother, who was busy serving with the army in the middle-east somewhere. Hallie was Gemma’s half sister and not Ben’s girlfriend, although it was pretty clear that he’d like her to be, and Nancy herself was twice divorced, so that Ben and Simon were full brothers, but only half siblings to the younger two.
And after all that, Xander and Giles stumbled through a much edited explanation of their family, which started with Buffy and Dawn, added a mention of Willow and Ken, made a comment about Faith, and ended up with a whole slew of sponsored girls brought in from all over the world for education and skills training before being sent back to serve their communities … which probably gave the impression that Giles was this amazing philanthropist – which he was, of course, only not entirely in the way they thought – and earned Xander all sorts of admiration for his tales of building homes and digging wells in Africa.
By the time they’d reached the tenth lock in the chain, they were making plans to visit Warwick castle together, Xander having made some passing reference to their intended trip. Ben had been dismissive of ‘boring castles,’ which had been entirely the wrong thing to say in front of Giles. He’d immediately shot back questions about the boy’s grasp of their own history, had captured them with hints of intrigue, bloody murder and heroic deeds, and administered an admirable coup de gras by mentioning that the visit would include both a tournament and a fair– complete with knights in armor, thundering horses, spit roast pig, and swordsmiths plying their wares.
He got Mary with horses. She’d been grabbing a bag of crisps out of the galley, and as soon as she’d heard that there would be real live horses on show she’d started jumping up and down. When Nancy, somewhat amusedly, had suggested that the family might join the expedition she’d let out a whoop of joy and raced back to the Belle’s bow to tell her brother and cousin the good news. Ben was holding out a little, claiming that clambering over ruins was not his thing. He was planning to join the army, like his uncle and he didn’t see how mooching about in castles was going to be help with that – except, of course, Giles had countered with him having an opportunity to learn about defensive tactics, and battle strategy, and stuff like that, which he really couldn’t argue with. Xander watched the by-play with amusement, enjoying – as he always did – the sound of those mellow tones in confident lecture mode, and finding equal pleasure in the family’s interplay among themselves, the mundane dynamics of people at play.
It made the hard work less – hard, in a way. The struggle with gates and lock paddles became a group exercise, the effort shared and the outcomes achieved with communal triumph. With a good hand on each tiller, the boats slid in and out of every lock as if they’d been choreographed, and the run between each lock turned into a good natured competition, Xander, Ben and Simon challenging each other to see who could reach the goal the fastest. By lock number nine, Simon was two up on his brother, and one up on Xander, who’d managed to gain a good head start at the earlier locks, but had ended up on the wrong side of the canal far too often for any chance of maintaining his lead. Ben was first to number ten, with Simon a close pace behind him. Xander had let them charge ahead, figuring that he was more likely to win through well developed stamina than he was in a straight sprint for the finish. They might be nine locks down, but they still had eleven to go; he was counting on lock number ten being the one where teenage energy started to run out, while years of running for his life would start to pay off in terms of endurance.
He was more or less right, although the subject was about to become an academic exercise – because it was in the tenth lock that all the drama happened.
Some of it was Twink’s fault. If she hadn’t been so puppishly cute, or so happy to be friendly, Michael would never have been trying to play with her. Mary had to take some blame as well, since she’d been distracted from her usual vigilance concerning her brother’s impulsive behaviour by the thought of getting to see real live horses – and that probably put some of the responsibility at Giles’ feet, since he’d been the one to raise the possibility in the first place.
But the majority of the culpability lay with Michael, who really hadn’t been thinking about what he was doing, or the possible consequences of it. He was an excitable child, full of energy and curiosity, and – like many a child his age – completely oblivious to his own mortality. The light and shadow descent of the locks – moving from sunlight waters into the dank confines of dripping lock walls and out again – had been entrancing at first, but had begun to pale with constant repetition. Jim – his usual companion in mischief – was busy with his Game Boy, trying to top the amazing high score that Michael had managed to achieve the evening before. Since Mary seemed similarly absorbed in her thoughts, Michael had to cast around for something else to entertain him.
He’d already caught a couple of glimpses of the puppy sleeping in the forward well of the Knight, so when Twinkie woke up and began to whuffle at her chew bone she became an instant target for his attention. The Belle was longer than the Knight, and since Giles was trying to have a conversation with Hallie and Amber, back at the stern, the prow of the latter was sitting level with the end of the Belle’s cabin, rather than directly alongside Michael’s current perch. All the same, her wagging tail was a clear temptation.
Had he thought about it for a moment, he’d have waited until both boats had cleared the lock, and then asked his Mum if he could ask to take the puppy for a walk while they went through the next few. But he couldn’t see his Mum right there and then: she was up at the top of the lock, waiting for the water levels to even out so she could push open her side of the lower gates. All he could see was water slick walls and the damp mosses on the inner side of the gates – and the puppy, who’d put her paws up to the side of the boat and was inviting him over with a short sharp back of greeting.
It probably didn’t look like much of a jump. Only a couple of feet, and if he scrambled up onto the side of his own boat, even less than that. Had the boats been moored and the water under them calm, he’d have made it without mishap. But he picked the exact moment that the gates began to move; the Belle lifted slightly in the water as the gate swept towards her, and the Knight moved backwards in the same swell. Michael – halfway between one and the other – held on to neither.
There was a sudden and unexpected splash.
And Mary started to yell as if the apocalypse had arrived.
Up on the top of the lock, Xander had been bracing himself against the lock gate’s balance beam, relying on the shift in pressure to tell him when to push, as the slowly sinking contents of the lock itself were on his blind side. This lock was a deep one, and had swallowed the boats and their crews with implacable inevitability. Even the top of Giles’ cap had vanished from sight before Xander finally felt the subtle shift of the wood behind him and heard the other gate begin to creak open. Something went sploosh.
He was moving before he even thought about it, years of ingrained instinct kicking in with reflex speed. In Sunnydale, sensible people ran away from the screaming, but this wasn’t Sunnydale and Xander had never really counted himself among the sensible people. Twink was barking, sharply and urgently, so that was where he went; three strides took him to the edge of the lock, and into sight of the pocket handkerchief patch of oily water between the bow of the Knight and the gate – which was slowly swinging open from the impetus he’d given it leaping away from the beam. Mary was half hanging over the side of the Belle, Jim was grabbing at her to keep from falling in, and there was absolutely no sign of Michael at all. Mary’s cries were becoming panicked.
Somewhere at the other end of the lock, Giles was also responding to the sudden sense of emergency, slamming the Knight into reverse and snapping at Amber to do the same. The pocket handkerchief unfolded into a man sized one. For a brief moment or two, Xander saw the flash of a red t-shirt, flailing somewhere below the water line.
With one hand he threw the windlass back behind him. With the other he reached and tugged off his own t-shirt, his feet kicking out of his sneakers and stepping forward – not to dive, which would have been stupid – but to step out and down, toes pointed and arms raised to minimise the chance of his hitting anything on the way down. Distantly he heard two other voices overlay Mary’s terrified yells: Nancy’s joining in that panicked chorus of Michael, Michael – and a deep and equally terrified exclamation of his own name.
Continued in Part Nine